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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 13:22 GMT
Germans flock to see silent monks
By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Berlin

Monk at Grande Chartreuse (photo: Philip Groening)
The monks' silence is interrupted only by the bells (photo: Philip Groening)
An unlikely film has been filling cinemas in Germany in recent weeks: a three-hour documentary with hardly a single spoken word, set in a monastery.

The film Into Great Silence is an intimate portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks high in a remote corner of the French Alps.

It came about 17 years after the director first requested permission to make it.

At the monastery, only the candles break the darkness.

It is the middle of the night and in the icy cold of their stone cloister, the monks sit in their thick habits reciting Gregorian verse.

"I think they simply do it because they choose to... become close to God," says the film's director Philip Groening.

"It's a very simple concept, the concept is God himself, is pure happiness, the closer you move to that, the happier you are."

Repetitive lives

He first requested to film in the remote monastery of Grande Chartreuse 17 years ago. When he finally got in, he found a regimented world that is largely unchanged since the founding of the Carthusian Order 10 centuries ago.

Grande Chartreuse (photo: Philip Groening)
I had had the privilege of living with a community of people who live practically without any fears
Philip Groening

The monks have avowed almost total silence, interrupted only by what one of them called "the terror of the bell".

"Once you accept the fact that when the bell rings - you just don't think about it - you just get up and go and do whatever that bell requires you to do, then, every moment that you have is a pretty permanently present moment," he says.

"You don't have to sort of plan, like 'What do I do in two years?... Where do I want my career to be in 15 years?' And the absence of language makes something - the moment itself becomes very, very strong."

The film tracks the infinitely repeated routines of the monastery. In one scene, a monk bathed in shadow delivers lunch through hatches in the cell doors.

Cinema hit

The cameraman then goes inside where the monks sleep on straw beds, with only a tin stove for heating. Outside, the snow-swept scenery of the French Alps provides a majestic backdrop.

Monks at Grande Chartreuse (photo: Philip Groening)
Audiences are fascinated by the lives of the monks (photo: Philip Groening)

Groening lived here for several months to make the film.

"When I left the monastery, I was thinking about what exactly had I lived through and it was realising that I had had the privilege of living with a community of people who live practically without any fears," he said.

"They have the feeling that death is just a transition, they have the feeling that if something goes wrong, then it's OK because it's something that God wanted and this is something that changed me."

The Carthusians are the strictest Christian order and this three-hour, almost totally silent film about them, was not expected to be a hit. But it is playing to packed cinemas, fascinating audiences with the unique glimpse of a contemplative life, unknown beyond the monastery walls.

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